David Heeley, Joan Kramer, James and Gloria Stewart
(Photo Credit: Author's collection)
Only days after their wonderful book, "In The Company of Legends" has been released, documentarians and authors David Heeley and Joan Kramer talk to us about their first publication and a little about their experiences with some of Hollywood's greatest.
The multi-Emmy award winning documentary team of David Heeley and Joan Kramer have in the past worked with some of old Hollywood's biggest names including Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, James Stewart, Lauren Bacall, Henry and Jane Fonda, Audrey Hepburn, Johnny Carson and many more. Their first book, "In The Company of Legends" (which we reviewed here) is an insight into what went on behind the camera in their productions and the friendships formed.
We are extremely thankful to David Heeley and Joan Kramer for their time in taking to us.
Firstly, I just wanted to say thankyou for your time and congratulations on the book!
DH: Well, thankyou!
How did the idea for the book come about?
JK: We were often telling stories about the experiences we've had to family and friends and every time we did, the person we were talking to would always say "You have to write a book!" and I would say "Yeah...we're not going to write a book!" But then just along the way we tried writing the stories down so as the years go by we wouldn't forget them. Then we found a literary agent quite by accident....
DH: Let me just say that we couldn't do this while we were producing programs. There was just too much work, but after we stopped making the programs we started to think about writing the book and that's when we looked for a literary agent.
JK: And then he circulated the proposal and every major publisher turned it down. Finally, after about eight or nine months, he happened to be at a book launch party for another one of his books that was published by Beaufort Books, which is our publisher. At that party he mentioned our proposal and that was not one of the publishers which he had pitched to. They said "That sounds fascinating!" and within two days, he had a deal!
So how long ago was that?
JK: It wasn't last June, but the one before...
DH: So it's getting on to two years ago.
JK: And what happened was that after called us and told us we had a deal, he said "OK, now I have the bad news...you have to write this book!" (laughs)
So was it two years worth of writing or was there a great deal of research involved?
DH: It really came in spurts, but of course as the clock started ticking, it really started to become sitting down at the computer and really writing it all out. Initially we were just trying to get all the ideas down and getting a form for the book and deciding how to deal with the fact that there was two of us trying to tell the story. You can see how that turned out, we did go with the idea of the two of us having two separate voices and then there were pieces where we were both talking together. Once we decided on that then it became a bit easier because what would happen was that I would write a bit and then Joan would write a bit and then we would go over what each of us had written. Collaborative writing is a pleasure as you are able to check and discuss everything first.
JK: And that means everything!
DH: What we discovered was that writing a book was very different to writing a script. In television you are always limited by how much time you have. You may have to get three facts into fifteen seconds and leading into a film clip at the same time, while with writing a book you are able to spend more time setting the scene and add more colour to the story.
JK: The other aspect was, for contrast, writing the stories was much harder than telling them. You no longer have your voice while you are telling the story. You just have to make it work with getting across humour without the luxury of using your voice to make it humorous or moving.
The stories that you tell in the book are so vivid. Were these stories still fresh in your mind or did it all come back to you as you wrote?
DH: A little bit of both I would say. The advantage we had of there being two of us what that we had two memories to call upon. Then on top of that we had our files to check on if we weren't sure of facts, we had the programs to check on to make sure we were telling the stories correctly and the biggest plus of all was that Joan kept scrapbooks.
JK: I have every calendar going back years in a file cabinet. I could go back and tell you what date Katharine Hepburn called us. There was no guess work here.
Unlike your documentaries, that would have made the research for your book so much easier...
DH: It did because we had already done the research for the show already. There was still quite a bit of time online making sure we got our facts straight. As almost happened with one of our stories, Joan almost quoted a dead person and then discovered it was somebody else. Your memory does play tricks with you.
JK: The other thing that was a headache but was fun at the same time was the scrapbooks that David mentioned. On one hand they gave us the knowledge of where to look for photos, but on the other hand I spent months putting each one together and they were all spread out in my living room so getting from my living room into another room was like jumping a hurdle! It looked like a hoarder had lived in this house!
DH: But here is the great thing, Joan had photographs in those scrapbooks that the photographers didn't have.
JK: It so happened that David and I walked around with a camera every moment that we were working and either I was shooting stills or David was shooting stills.
One of the great things about your book is that it is so respectful, even if the experience you had wasn't particularly wonderful. I'm talking in part about the day you were shown the door by Bette Davis. Is it impossible not to have respect for people like this no matter what the situation?
DH: Well, as you know it's not a "dishing the dirt" book in any way and we just wanted to tell the stories as truthfully as they happened because they didn't need any embellishing in any way. We felt that just what happened was fascinating in its own way and we didn't want to force anyone into feeling a certain way, this is what happened.
Another thing I noticed about the two of you is that you both have this "Never take no for an answer" attitude. How important has this been in your careers?
DH: Very! (laughs)
JK: (laughs) Probably crucial!
DH: Of course that happened in the very first chapter with Fred Astaire. We were lucky that through our ignorance we were persistent there. If we had known that he controlled his film clips so much we wouldn't have persisted. We would have just got up and gone away. If there hadn't been any Fred Astaire shows there wouldn't have been any subsequent shows.
When you were first starting out together and you heard the words "Mr Astaire is furious", did you feel it was all over before it had even started?
DH: Well, when you pick up the phone and hear those words your heart sinks and you try to figure out where to go next. Then you go and talk to your executive producer and he said "I'm not surprised, but he is a public figure so go ahead and do it". So you press on and, as Katharine Hepburn would always say, you pull yourself together! You go ahead and you do what you have to do. But yes, it's rough when you get those sort of call because it does feel as though the world is collapsing. As you stated earlier, one of the things you learn is that you have to persevere. You have to keep pushing gently. You have to be aggressive but in a nice way so as to not turn them off, whoever you want to reach. There's a nice way to persuade somebody and a bad way to persuade them and I think we have always found the balance. So in the end almost everyone we wanted we landed.
JK: I think so. How do you know how far to push without it being obnoxious? How do you not turn people off? I don't know the answer.
DH: Let me just say that Joan doesn't know the answer, but she was born with that gene. She is the best person I have ever known of reaching a total stranger on the phone and keeping them on the phone for a long time and by the end of the call, they are the best of friends. The classic example in the book is the case of Errol Flynn's widow, Pat Wymore. Basically she had said no to everybody who had called her and had wanted to talk about Errol Flynn and when Joan finally got her on the phone, the conversation ended with "Why don't you come down and visit me at my home in Jamaica?"
It's a wonderful gift to have!
DH: Yes, she's very good at it!
JK: I guess, but I can't explain it!
DH: If you explain it, you will probably never be able to do it again!
(Photo credit: Author's collection)
One of the people you had worked with who you were closest to and we have briefly talked about is Katharine Hepburn. She was notorious for not doing interviews and very rarely appearing on television. What do you think made her trust you both so much that she really wanted to work with you? More than once as well?
JK: Well, first of all we made a program that aired in 1981 called Starring Katharine Hepburn. It cannot be seen because it is out of production and frankly we are not sorry because she is not on it. David had called her...
DH: Well, again the conversation is described in the book in great detail, but it is very vivid in my mind. George Cukor approached her on our behalf and when he said "She said no, but I think you could persuade her", I had to call her. Of course, hearing that voice on the phone is just intimidating to say the least, but in the end I was able to get her to say yes to let us do the show. That was just with the case of Fred Astaire. It was a crucial step because even though she didn't want to be on it as she said she was too busy, it was probably a combination of that and not wanting to be on it at the same time. When she said yes, it was her approval which allowed us to do the show (Starring Katharine Hepburn). She said she hadn't seen it, but our spies told us she had. She called us when she returned home from being on tour and said that her friends had seen the show and asked if we would like to come over for tea. What happened there was we had succeeded in jumping the hurdle or leaping over the obstacle course, whatever you want to call it. She had appreciated what we had done enough to let us come over to her house and that was a big deal.
Classic film buffs will love the chapter in the book when the two of you went to what was MGM Studios with Kate. What was that like?
JK: Oh...well...first of all people were standing on the rooftops and leaning out the windows. She hadn't been back on the MGM lot for many, many years and news crews were showing up to cover her return to MGM. She then took myself a few other people on a tour. She said she wanted to see L.B. Mayer's office and she just barged into the then chair Frank Rosenfelt's office and said "I want to see L.B. Mayer's desk"! She was just fascinated to be back there! Everybody around at MGM who were used to seeing stars were just undone by the fact that it was her.
DH: It's a cliché to say she was like a force of nature, but when she was around you were aware that she was around and she had a magnificent personality and the ability to get things done. She knew that a phone call from Katharine Hepburn would get things done and she would often do that when she could see that we were having problems to get film clips or she would get people to appear who wouldn't have done otherwise. Going back to MGM, that was just the way it was when she was around. That doesn't mean that she was obnoxious, she was just somebody who carried that with her. It was a wonderful personality to be around. It could be intimidating, but once we learned how to work with each other it was a dream. When she sad "I have a suggestion", you knew you better listen because you knew it was going to be a damn good suggestion.
JK: And she was very canny, she knew exactly what she was doing. She knew what worked for her, she knew what the audience would find entertaining, funny, moving....and she knew how to deliver that message in whatever she had to say or do. She was really quite extraordinary.
You also spent time on the Universal Studios back lot with James Stewart when you were working with him. What was that like?
JK: Johnny Carson, who rarely did anything outside "The Tonight Show" besides the Oscars, agreed to host this program and we took both of them to the Universal back lot where Jimmy had made so many movies. They were like a mutual admiration society! Jimmy would come up to me and say "Isn't it wonderful John giving up his time to do this" and then he would tell that to Johnny. Then Johnny would come up to me and say "If he tells me one more time how wonderful it is that I am doing this I am going to strangle him! Doesn't he know how special this is for me?" I said "Johnny, he believes that you are the only star on this lot today"
DH: It was a very special day and of course as so often happens when you are working you don't realise that as you are just thinking that I have to get this shot. It's only after it's over that you realise what an amazing experience you just had. They were both enjoying it as well. Jimmy was enjoying being in the back lot and it was a new experience for Johnny to be working in this way. Jimmy was very supportive of Johnny at that time, you could see him encouraging him. They had a great time and we had a great time. What we got out of that was magic.
JK: The other thing was that relationship was not put on. They really cared for each other and the warmth that came across from them on camera was real.
DH: I think you will get that from their final story in the book when Johnny called Jimmy just before he died to talk about Destry Rides Again. Johnny had kept calling him even when Jimmy wouldn't come to the phone and to me that is the most moving part of our book the way those two interacted and the fact that Jimmy did come onto the phone those few days before he died to have that final conversation with Johnny. To me that is still very touching.
With all the Hollywood legends who you worked with, who was the most like the public reputation that they had?
DH: Audrey was like that, Joan....
JK: Yes, Audrey Hepburn was wonderful and I expected her to be wonderful. What I didn't expect was she was funny and she was very funny when she heard David's English accent and said "Why don't I do this whole show in cockney like I did in My Fair Lady?"
Others surprised us, and weren't the people they were reputed to be and one or two were. One or two were unfavourably exactly like their reputation.
DH: We are talking about Lauren Bacall here as we had heard that she was a tough person to work with and what was really remarkable about Bacall was that under that tough surface...which I believe was a protection for herself....was a genuinely nice woman. There was something really quite remarkable about Bacall. We kind of got to see that after we got through the rough parts with her and we ended up friends. With the exception of Bette Davis who we met very briefly, anybody else we had a hard time with we got over it. They got over it and we became great friends with these people.
(Photo credit: Author's collection)
That really is a great testament to the two of you as they obviously all held so much trust in you!
DH: Well, they had to trust us and they did.
JK: What's interesting to me is that these legends, if you don't mind me using the title of the book, worked with many directors over their careers, David and I are in a very small of nucleus that did things with them that were so personal to them. When they performed on screen as a character, they were playing a character. They did not play a character in our show.
Did developing relationships with these people change the way you watched films with them in them?
JK: I mean, I have the ability and I guess David does too, I have the ability to take of my producers hat very fast. I could enjoy a film and not think "Oh that is my friend!"
DH: Actually it is a very good question and it is something I have dealt with in the past. Sometimes when you have developed a relationship with somebody and you know that person and you see them on the stage, you can't disassociate that person. It's like your friend trying to be someone else. The great performers you don't think that this is someone you have tea with, they are that character. We have been lucky that we have been friends with some great performers. Joanne Woodward knocked my socks off! I mean, Joan and I know Joanne extremely well, but I will sometimes see her in a performance and I will think "Who the hell is that?! That is nobody I know!" That is the sign of a great performer, a great actor. Most people in the audience don't have this problem of disassociation. It's a unique experience for us to see them on the screen and ask if they are the person we have just been chatting with or are they the character?
What advice would you give to people who aspire to be biographers or documentary makers?
DH: Do a lot of research! Number one, you just have to know your subject inside and out. Assuming the subject has agreed or you are going to do it whether they like it or not, you have to get it right. You have an obligation to get it right because yours may be the only version of this story. People tend to believe what they read and they tend to believe what they see on television. We have a tremendous weight on our shoulders, we writers, directors and producers. We have a tremendous responsibility and we need to live up to that responsibility and get it right.
JK: The other thing is David and I have never done a show that is unauthorised. We either work with the subjects and if the subjects were no longer alive such as Humphrey Bogart, we work with their friends and families. We never did an unauthorised biography ever.
DH: The problem then becomes are you going to do something that is going to please your subject or not. It is a very delicate balance. I don't think we ever pulled back on something because we thought it would upset somebody, but occasionally we would pull up something and we would think "Woah! We don't know how they are going to feel about this..." One case was Pat Wymore with Errol Flynn, who was a great Australian, but he was no saint. To pretend he was would have been a huge disservice to him and his life. But by this time we had become very good friends with Pat and we said to her that we were going to say something. She said "Go ahead! That's who he was, tell his story and tell the truth because people will appreciate that and so would Errol".
Thankyou once again to David and Joan and we wish them all the best of luck with the rest of their adventure with "In The Company of Legends"!
If you wish to buy "In The Company of Legends", please visit the official Amazon page.